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The Olympics are always a time of not only great athletic feats, but also a time of great stories. The human interest aspect of getting to know the athletes has always been a staple of Olympic coverage, especially for individual sports such as swimming, track and field and gymnastics.
Going into the Tokyo Olympics, no one expected that arguably the biggest story would be an athlete not competing.
That would of course be Simone Biles, the face of modern gymnastics and the face of the U.S. Olympians heading into Tokyo. Last Tuesday, Biles competed in the vault and on her first attempt she did something she almost never does.
She messed up.
Biles looked uncomfortable in the air and although she did land safely, she did not perform the maneuver that she had originally intended. She left the floor with medical staff and did not compete again that night.
Afterwards, Biles chose to withdraw from the competition (although she would return the following week for the balance beam, where she won the bronze medal) but will not compete in any aerial event that involves twisting in the air. Apparently, she is suffering from an issue known amongst gymnasts as the “twisties.”
Most readers are probably more familiar with traditional team sports such as basketball or baseball. The closest analogy to the twisties would be an athlete getting the yips. We’ve seen it happen to pitchers who lose the ability to find the strike zone or basketball players who lose the rhythm of their jump shot. NBA legend Charles Barkley was an avid golfer before the yips struck; now his swing is almost painful to watch.
Whether it’s the twisties or the yips, ultimately it’s the result of when movements that have become muscle memory from years of repetition are interrupted by conscious thought. Rather than acting off of kinesthetic awareness, the athlete is thinking out the steps of the process. The result is almost always a failure to perform the intended action.
For a gymnast, this can be exceptionally dangerous. If a basketball player thinks about his shot, the consequence is a miss. But if a gymnast loses sense of which way their body is twisting and where they are in the air, the result can be serious or even life-threatening injury.
Given the potentially severe end result of trying to perform complex aerial moves while suffering from the twisties, Biles chose to withdraw.
The response to this was in some cases, problematic.
While there was an outpouring of support for Biles from many, including the former face of U.S. Summer Olympians Michael Phelps, there was also some criticism that is antiquated and has no business existing in sports in 2021.
For example, conservative radio host Charlie Kirk felt the appropriate response was to call Biles “selfish,” “immature,” “a shame to the country” and puzzlingly, “a sociopath.” On further elaboration, Kirk stated: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
That’s one interpretation. It’s wrong, but it is an interpretation.
Kirk’s statements may have been the harshest but were far from the only criticisms. Piers Morgan, Doug Gottlieb, Clay Travis and others have expressed similar sentiments.
Let’s take a look at why this is such a problematic issue:
Simone Biles Is A Person First And An Athlete Second
On some level, I can’t believe I’m seeing these kind of critiques in 2021. Aren’t we better than this yet?
The type of comments made by Kirk and others can be basically boiled down to this: they do not view Simone Biles as a human being, they view her as a tool to be used to win gold medals. As soon as she doesn’t do that, people like Kirk feel she’s earned their wrath.
Again I have to ask: aren’t we better than this?
We’ve seen this kind of win at all costs mentality in sports in the past and the ultimate outcome is usually less than ideal. More frustratingly, we’ve already seen it in Olympic gymnastics.
Atlanta, 1996. U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug heard a snap in her ankle while performing a vault in the medal round, and limped back to the starting position. She asked her coach, Bela Karolyi, if she really needed to do a second vault. Despite her injury, she vaulted again and secured the gold.
Strug was lauded for her grit and determination. Her vault became the main story surrounding the 1996 Olympics.
What doesn’t get talked about enough is the fact that by performing that second vault, Strug made the injury significantly worse. But nobody really cares about that, because we won the gold, right?
This is the same mentality being expressed 25 years later in the criticisms of Biles’ withdrawal. Tough it out, work through it, win at all costs. People will point to the 15 minutes of fame Strug achieved by sacrificing her ankle for a medal. But they don’t want to talk about what comes after.
We Still Don’t Take Mental Health Seriously Enough
If Biles had torn her ACL or broken an ankle on her errant vault last Tuesday, nobody would have batted an eye at her withdrawal. There would be an understanding that she was hurt and could no longer compete.
But when Biles knew her own head wasn’t right to currently compete at the Olympic level, and withdrew herself before a catastrophic injury could occur, that same understanding doesn’t universally exist. They would rather she continue to compete, despite the risks. And that’s where we need the context of who Simone Biles is.
Yes, she’s an absolutely astounding athlete. A once in a generation talent. But she’s also a person who has had a hard life, has mental health concerns and has been put under an unfathomable amount of pressure.
Biles’ mother suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, and she spent many of her formative years in and out of foster care homes. She was routinely bullied in High School as a result of her muscled physique from gymnastic training. In 2016, hackers accessed her health records and leaked to the entire world that she suffers from ADHD.
And perhaps worst of all, she encountered Larry Nassar.
If you aren’t familiar with Nassar, he was the former team doctor for U.S. gymnastics, starting in 1988. He was released in 2015 and shortly afterwards he was accused of sexually assaulting over 100 female athletes. Biles was one of them.
Nassar worked closely with Karolyi and his wife, Martha. The Karolyi’s training ranch has since been exposed for being emotionally, physically and mentally abusive to its gymnasts. It was also located in such an isolated area that reaching a hospital was impractical. Instead, the gymnasts were treated by Nassar on site, which created an environment where the abuse could occur.
When Nassar was accused, the Karolyis went to ground, shuttering the training facility and dissociating from him.
It needs to be mentioned here that when Kerri Strug injured herself in the 1996 Olympics, Nassar was the one there to treat her. Bela Karolyi was of course there as the coach, as was Martha.
So we laud Kerri Strug for injuring herself to win a medal under the tutelage of, and I don’t use this phrase lightly, actual monsters. After that, we condemn those monsters once the truth is exposed about them. Nassar is currently serving a life sentence without parole. Karolyi, who always stood by a “the ends justify the means” mindset, has disappeared from public life since the scandal was brought to light.
But then when Simone Biles, another victim of those monsters, suffers completely understandable mental issues, people like Charlie Kirk want her to continue to compete anyway?
Well, Biles isn’t having that. Despite the immense pressure placed on her by being made the face of the Olympics, similar to Michael Phelps or Apollo Anton Ohno in previous games, she chose to protect herself. Because clearly, the sports world wasn’t going to protect her. Despite her success, sports and the media around them have failed her to some extent.
She should be applauded for what she did, not condemned. And that’s because…
We Already Know What Happens When An Athlete’s Mental Wellbeing Is Ignored
Delonte West is not a household name to most. But any educated NBA fan knows who he is. He played in the NBA from 2004 to 2012, most notably playing in the 2007 Finals for the Cleveland Cavaliers, alongside another former Olympian, LeBron James.
Over his eight year career, West averaged 9.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Not exactly eye-popping numbers. What makes West worthy of our time and consideration is what happened to him after his NBA career.
West was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years after his career started. While his statistics may not necessarily reflect it, lasting eight seasons in the NBA is a remarkable achievement, and West was a key piece of several successful teams. The fact that he was able to do that while struggling with bipolar disorder is astounding.
During his playing days, there was not much discussion in regards to his mental health issues. There were some off the court incidents that certainly raised some eyebrows, such as in 2009 when he was stopped for a routine traffic violation and was found to have three guns in his possession that were not properly registered.
But outside of that incident, the media at large didn’t seem to have much concern for West. He was a decent player on some successful teams, and as long as he continued to perform, nobody seemed to question much.
After his professional career officially ended in March 2015 when he was waived by the D-League’s Texas Legends, things got worse. In February 2016, West was seen wandering around Houston barefoot and in a hospital gown. A few months later he was seen panhandling in Maryland.
West surfaced in the news again in January 2020, when video became available showing him in handcuffs following a fist fight. West was rambling incoherently in the video. He was caught on video again in September of the same year, panhandling in the Dallas area.
After that incident, Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban stepped in and aided West in seeking help. By all accounts, West is doing well, working at a rehab facility in Florida.
Over an eight year career, West earned approximately $16 million. And yet, just a few short years after his career ended, he was wandering city streets, disoriented and apparently homeless and penniless.
Keep in mind that West was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008 and remained in the NBA until 2012. In that time he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks.
Does anyone really believe that over the course of four years, West passed through three different organizations with three different medical staffs and no one noticed he needed help?
Of course, Mark Cuban did finally get him the help he needed and that deserves praise. Better late than never. But after applauding Cuban shouldn’t we be asking: how did it get to this point?
I can’t say with certainty, but the overall history of the way athletes are viewed as a means to an end can really only lead to one conclusion: as long as West was still performing, the mental health issues couldn’t be that bad, right?
We can clearly see how bad things got for West, and keep in mind, he was just your average professional player. Of course, being in the NBA comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure to perform.
Now take that pressure and magnify it by about 10 million and you can imagine what Simone Biles was dealing with.
Simply put, there are levels to this. If West had a bad game, it really only affected people in Cleveland or whatever other NBA city he was playing for. Biles has the entire country rooting for her.
On top of that, the media coverage of the Olympics has added immense pressure on Biles to perform. NBC had built hours of their coverage around Biles and her quest for the gold. Of course, all of the sports are covered by the network. But even before her withdrawal, if you turned on NBC’s coverage for just 30 minutes at any point in time, it was almost guaranteed they would bring her up.
Neither myself nor anyone reading this has any idea what that kind of pressure is like. Now add in what we know about Biles’ personal history. Add to that suffering from the twisties: both the fear of injury and the feeling of your body not performing something it used to be able to do and you don’t know why.
Be honest with yourself. You would step away, too.
Those ingredients mixed together are highly combustible. And people like Charlie Kirk want to criticize Biles for removing the detonator?
Biles did the right thing. The only thing any responsible person would do. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion:
We Have To Do Better
Biles’ story may be the newest and one of the biggest, but its only one example of a larger ongoing issue in sports: the prioritization of performance and the glory of victory at the expense of an athlete’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Let’s just take on recent example to emphasize the point. Last year, Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott caught some flak in the media for mentioning he was suffering from depression and anxiety around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, he received criticism from Fox’s Skip Bayless.
Bayless basically said that publicly discussing these issues was a sign of weakness and questioned Precott’s abilities as a leader.
Those comments are objectively disgusting. They’re even worse when you consider this happened right around the time that Prescott’s brother Jace had committed suicide.
To his credit, Prescott has used this controversy as a platform to bring more awareness to mental health. And he stated that being a real leader means being open and honest with those around you, not hiding your own pain to appear tough.
We need more leaders like Dak Prescott and Simone Biles. People like Charlie Kirk and Skip Bayless need to realize that this toxic attitude needs to be left in the rearview mirror. And if they can’t do that, maybe we should just stop giving them attention.
The good news is we are trending in the right direction and hopefully this Biles situation is just a small dip as we continue to climb upward out of the toxic toughness that has plagued sports for far too long. Others, like NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, have been doing stellar work raising awareness about mental health. And knowing how smart and tough Simone Biles is, she’s going to join that movement.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love sports. You’re reading this on a sports website that I am the content manager of. I live for this stuff. But because I love it so much, I want it to be better. I want to watch athletes compete and struggle and triumph and have all the fun and emotion that comes with that.
But not at the expense of the athlete. My entertainment will never be worth them sacrificing their own wellbeing. We got rid of gladiator fights for a reason.
Yes, an Olympic Gold Medal is a remarkable achievement. It represents so much to so many and I don’t want to diminish its value.
But at the end of the day, it’s a little metal disk made out of recycled computer parts.
Simone Biles is worth a lot more than that.